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Evidence Beyond Words

In a chapter on media literacy in Critical Voter, I relate human sense perception to different modes of persuasion including logos (reason), pathos (emotion), and ethos (in this context, our connection to others).

Of our five senses, touch, smell, and taste are primarily pathos and ethos drivers, which is why happy and sad memories and feelings tend to get triggered by a caress, an odor, or a splendid (or not so splendid) meal.

Hearing, it turns out, is our most logos-based sense, which is why listening to lectures, podcasts, or news broadcasts is such an efficient way for people to take in information. This is not to say that our ears play no role in our emotional or interpersonal lives, especially given the ability of music to bring on an emotional state or create intimate connections with other listeners.

When it comes to untangling ways our senses interact with different aspects of the human condition, vision is the sense that is most confounded by the roles our eyes play in separating (or conflating) logos, pathos, and ethos.

Vision obviously plays a part in human reasoning, given the importance of reading as a way (once the primary way) humans took in new knowledge. But in addition to words, the eye also takes in pictures and, increasingly, moving images, and when words and images collide – even on the same page – it is often the images that win out.

For example, how many of you continue to glance up at the photo at the top of this piece, or have wondered since you started reading when I’d stop yammering on about logos, pathos, and ethos and begin talking about those cute little puppies?

One of the most famous political stories regarding the competing nature of words and images took place in 1984 when CBS journalist Lesley Stahl ran an extended segment on the nightly news that strung together video of then President Ronald Reagan’s carefully orchestrated campaign events with the reporter’s narration contrasting the candidate’s pomp and promises with what she considered to be the darker reality of his administration. While her words were spoken, she counted on them pointing out a contradiction between the happy patriotic images recreated on screen and a darker vision her spoken narrative claimed those images were hiding.

Regardless of what you think about Stahl and CBS’s choice to run a piece of this type, the punchline of this tale was that rather than condemning the piece, the Reagan campaign instead called the journalist to thank her and her network for giving their colorful and carefully orchestrated campaign events so much free prime-time exposure. For these campaign operatives understood what CBS did not: that when presented with powerful, celebratory images in the form of exciting campaign activities, no amount of ominous negative narration can overwhelm those positive visuals.

Fast forward more than thirty years to a time, now, when images play a bigger role than they did in pre-literate society and moving images in the form of video and animation make up larger and larger percentages of our now-ubiquitous media and social media consumption.

In theory, a picture is worth a thousand words, but those words often contain arguments that are not articulated in a way they can easily be dissected and analyzed using the tools of logic-checking.

For example, what conclusion are you being asked to believe when offered these images of children in detention at various holding facilities for people trying to enter the US illegally?

I suspect the conclusion on offer is that US border and immigration policies are inhumane, inflicting terrible punishment on “kids in cages,” something hard to argue with given the emotional impact of pictures of actual child suffering.

As it turns out, these images are taken from stories published during both the Trump and Biden administrations, and presuming that reveal didn’t make you rapidly try to figure out which was which and adjust your opinion accordingly, I hope it got you thinking that harrowing images alone cannot settle a matter as complex as how a nation should manage its borders.

If the ability of genuine images to manipulate emotion was not bad enough, today we have to deal with manufactured images designed specifically to short circuit reason. In some cases, these are shallow or deep fakes, created through digital manipulation. But often they are simply images used to illustrate a story that later turn out to have nothing to do with the story in question.

Given the power images have to trigger emotional responses, is it any wonder that some people go to great lengths to stop unflattering images from reaching the public?

Totalitarians know that repression unseen often goes unnoticed, which is why they put so much effort into controlling access to information – especially visual information that is so hard to argue away with words. But even in the un-totalitarian world where media and social media flow freely, control over story-telling imagery has become standard operating procedure in political debates.

Like so many issues related to taking control of your own thinking, problems of image manipulation or human manipulation by images are not likely to be solved through legislation or technology. Rather, we need to understand the power images have to both communicate and manipulate and never treat a picture or a video – no matter how compelling – as the final word on any topic.


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